It’s strange how words alone can conjure such images, writes Paul Naylor. When I first heard the title of last night’s drama premiere, I was expecting tales from some posh boarding school.
I imagined Peaky Blinders to be the nickname of some sickly-looking public schoolboy, perhaps best friend to Spotty Perkins and Fatty Simpson. How wrong can someone be?
Peaky Blinders is in fact a gritty, uncompromising tale of post First World War gangsters, named so because of their tendency to attack enemies with razor blades, concealed in peak caps. They make their money from illegal gambling, the black market and protection rackets.
Set on the mean streets of Small Heath, Birmingham, it is an epic and lavish production – and I can’t wait for the next episode.
From its stylish opening you just know that this is going to be something special. Ice cool Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby, introduced spectacularly on horseback – like some mysterious Clint Eastwood character.
As he makes his way casually through the industrial wilderness on the back of his horse, Modern Boy, it is clear he is a feared man. Even the coppers tip their hats as he trots along the pungent streets – perhaps acknowledging a greater power than they possess.
Adding to the superb cinematography is a cracking soundtrack. The brave choice to replace an orchestral score works incredibly well, with brooding, bluesy tracks from the likes of Tom Waits, The Black Keys, Jack White and Nick Cave – maverick musicians for an equally ambitious series.
Steven Knight’s Peaky Blinders is a romanticised vision, based on fact. It tells the story of feuding gangs against the backdrop of 1919 Brum.
Determined chief inspector Campbell, brought effortlessly to the screen by Jurassic Park’s Sam Neil, is seconded from Ireland by Churchill himself to clean up the streets. Communist agitators, lead by union boss Freddie Thorns, are at odds with the Peaky Blinders – headed up by Tommy and brother Arthur. Both gangs are prime suspects connected to the robbery of an arsenal of weapons and ammo.
We first see Freddie and Tommy winding each other up in a local pub, atmospherically depicted as some spaghetti western saloon. You can almost smell the tobacco; the whiskey fumes; the filth. It all looks very ‘how the wild West Midlands was won’.
Director Otto Bathurst skilfully punctuates the muted greys and sepia tones of early 20th Century Small Heath sparingly with the vivid flames of industry, or the jade green coat of a beautiful female spy, sent to work in the aforementioned pub by Campbell.
Best for me though was the chief inspector’s rousing speech on his arrival at the police headquarters. Any doubts about his authority were soon dismissed.
Filmed at various locations across the UK – including studios in Leeds, Liverpool docks and the streets of Bradford – it is reassuring to know that many elements of Peaky Blinders were committed to film a lot closer to home.
The Black Country Living Museum, Dudley, was an obvious choice, but thankfully not overused. Had it been, there would have been a danger of over-familiarisation.
What was familiar though were nods to modern life. Viewers witnessed pre-match supporters enjoying a pint before heading off to St Andrew’s to watch The Blues. More poignantly, it dealt with the aftermath of war – of soldiers, traumatised by what they had seen and done.
If I had any criticism at all, it would be that some of the West Midlands accents are a little too over the top. Cillian Murphy’s gentle Birmingham tones are pretty good, but occasionally the supporting cast transported me back to the early comedy sketches of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. If you’ve never seen their hilarious ‘At Home With Slade’ parodies, get online now. Cup-a-soup Noddy?
Nevertheless, Peaky Blinders makes compelling viewing, with the first instalment boding well for the remaining five. An absolute must see.